2016 in Books (part 2)


Anyone looking for a book?

Below is a brief review of some books I've read in the second half of 2016.

This makes just over 40 books read in 2016, next year I'm tempted to include some graphs and maybe a few journal articles.

Non Fiction

Dreams of a Final Theory: Steven Weinberg

In the late 80s a particle-physics experiment called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) had it's funding cut, despite the fact that construction was well under way. This was most likely because Texas (where it was being built) also had a lot of money being spent there as part of the International Space Station project and the ensuing political difficulties that followed the concentration of resources into just one state. Over many years a gradual but consistent decline in the Department of Energy budget put them at odds and the SSC lost.

The main thrust of this book is Weinberg (who won part of the Nobel Prize for the theory of Electroweak Symmetry Breaking) arguing for the SSC over the scientifically bereft ISS, along with a now standard popular-science-level Particle Physics introduction and a lot of less-standard ranting about religion and philosophers of science.

There are many parallels between then and now and you can almost replace Tevatron/LEP with LHC and the arguments for building the next-generation of particle physics experiments after the LHC and the existential crisis facing Particle Physics experiments and theory in the absence of significant new physics from the LHC (except for a SM-like Higgs of course) are very relevant.

The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles: Noam Nisson & Simon Schocken

This book/course (that also goes by the moniker 'From Nand to Tetris') took a month but what a rewarding endeavour. The first chapter engages the reader to derive logic operators (AND, NOT, OR) purely in terms of NAND (like a transistor) and gives a scaffolding to build:

  • an ALU that runs on (a provided) emulator;
  • a 16-bit assembler for a somewhat simplified instruction set that runs on said emulator;
  • a stack based VM that compiles to said 16-bit instruction-set;
  • a high level Java/.Net style compiler/language spec to run on the stack VM;
  • something between a light-weight OS and a library for the high level language for interacting with memory mapped input devices, allocating memory etc.

I can't recommend this book enough for understanding each level of abstraction in a running computer.

Boss Fight Books: Spelunky: Derek Yu

Spelunky is a game with which I became somewhat obsessed years ago, logging many, many hours of play. Having studied (and read quite a bit about) its procedural level generation in the past there was still plenty of things to learn in this book by its designer. Absolutely fascinating.

Surreal Numbers: Donald Knuth (Yes, that Donald Knuth.)

This is a rather strange book full of proofs about a branch of mathematics called Conway's numbers. It's also the first work of fiction to feature a new result before being published in any journal. Frankly, the love story is somewhat laughable for its lack of credibility but the ambition here is very noble: in wrapping up Number Theory derivations in a fictional narrative Knuth really, really wants to reach people that a math journal cannot. A+

Eyes on the Sky: Francis Graham-Smith

A whirlwind tour across the telescopes of the electromagnetic spectrum from Gamma-Ray bursts to Radio wavelengths and from the classic lenses of antiquity to the cutting edge of astronomy. This is probably a bit specialist but as a nerd who did an undergraduate courses on modern telescopes I loved it. A+

Weapons of Math Destruction: Cathy O'Neil

A somewhat alarmist review of the ways in which tasks formerly performed by humans are now being done by (usually quite rubbish) automation. The author is quite opinionated and makes quite a few un-substantiated claims but the basic thesis that automation tends to affect those who are poor and un-represented far more than the wealthy elite thus exacerbating wealth inequality in society is well researched and argued for. For example, when getting insurance or a bank loan if you go to an expensive, boutique service you'll probably still be seen by a human, rather than an algorithm that can make mistakes or codify the (hopefully subconscious) biases and prejudices of those who made it.

Effective Python

A good complement to 'the Hackers guide to Python' this book really helped me think more like a python-ista before starting a new role in which I get to be one.

The 59 Icosahedra: H.S.M. Coxeter, P. Du Val, H.T. Flather, J.F. Petrie

This charity shop gem is really an extended journal article exploring the maths of the Icosahedra (20-sided 3d-shapes) group members and operation, complete with a full enumeration of each many diagrams and in some cases pictures of paper models made by the great Coxeter. It's on my to-do list to hijack a 3-d printer and get it to print some of these.

Myth of a Strong Leader: Archie Brown

This was on Bill Gates winter reading-list and so far I'm loving it. It's sort of a history of politics in the 20th Century analysing the party leaders. Strangely haven't found any references to former psuedo-reality-tv-show-hosts.


Johnny Mnemonic: William Gibson

Reading this made me appreciate the 80s Keanu Reeves film, given that it was only a short story.

The Dispossessed : Ursula LeGuin

A thinly veiled and slightly exaggerated metaphor about the differences between Capitalist and Communist societies.

Left Hand of Darkness : Ursula LeGuin

Another sci-fi classic that's set on a distant world in which the human inhabitants periodically change sex and spend most of the time as an a-sexual hemaphrodite. Not only that, but they make first contact with a more technologically advanced portion of humanity.

Zones of Thought: Vernon Vince

  • A Fire Upon the Deep
  • A Deepness in the Sky
  • Children of the Sky

This trilogy sort of snuck up on me. The first two are very reminiscent of the Culture novels by Iain M Banks (which I also loved) and thoroughly explore some very interesting ideas such as a feudal society of dog-like creatures that can only think coherently (and collectively) in small packs, and get screwed up when two packs get too physically close together. The second book I actually preferred, focusing on a race of meter-tall spiders in a just-post-industrial-revolution-society undergoing a world-scale conflict. Not only that, but they collectively hibernate several hundred years at a time and are set for first contact with a more technologically advanced humanity. I feel a strange affinity to spiders after reading this book. The third ties up the story nicely but is otherwise miss-able in my humble opinion.

Howls Moving Castle: Diana Wynne Jones

A cute kids book I read on Sarah's recommendation. Certainly richer than the (excellent) film.

Call of Cuthulu: H P Lovecraft

The Colour of Space: H P Lovecraft

Solaris: Stanislav Lem

A superb sci-fi great that discusses metaphysics. A lot.

The Dark Tower series: Stephen King

  • The Gunslinger
  • The Drawing of Three
  • The Wastelands
  • Wizard and Glass

What to say about this series? Clearly I can't stop reading them, but in the same way that it's difficult to stop eating junk food full of Mono-sodium-Glutemate. The writing is not superb and you have to be quite forgiving about the plot in places but I can see this making a pretty good HBO show later this year.

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